Content sponsored by Inmarsat

On the eve of the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, Frederik Van Essen, senior vice president of strategy and business development at Inmarsat Aviation, talked to Aviation Week about the importance of the connected aircraft, cockpit safety and satellite communications.

Aviation Week: We are hearing the term “connected aircraft” a lot. What does it mean?

Van Essen: Aircraft have been connected for a long time in the cockpit. Now we are extending that to passengers and crew. We can serve large groups of passengers with next-generation aviation connectivity systems that provide reliable connections around the world at an affordable price point. And we are moving from very specific uses in the cockpit to much more generic uses with secure internet protocols.

What is Inmarsat’s role in the connected aircraft?

​Inmarsat came to connectivity from a mobility perspective. Other players came from passenger entertainment or ground systems that they have repurposed for aircraft, for example scaling up a local air-to-ground network. For 20 years, we have provided very reliable cockpit communications, and want to provide the same reliability to passengers. 

Our Global Xpress network is like a mobile cellphone network in the sky. On the ground, each phone has a dual receiver, so that it is already talking to the next cell and you never lose connection as you move. That’s different from Wi-Fi, where you have to set up again when you move to the next hotspot or from the old Ku-band satellite networks that were not designed for mobility. With our network, you do not lose connectivity as aircraft move between satellites.

What element does Inmarsat provide?

We are like the mobile telephone operator, we are the network provider—but in the sky. Honeywell provides the antenna hardware on top of the aircraft, boxes to steer the antenna and modems to send data. Within the cabin, airlines can choose their own onboard hardware—such as a Wi-Fi network or a server.

What is Global Xpress?

Global Xpress (GX) is a completely new system for connecting aircraft around the world with reliable, high-speed broadband internet. It uses Ka-band, a new radio frequency band that has a lot of free bandwidth and is ideal for aviation. We currently have three satellites up, enough to cover the globe (except for the polar extremes where few aircraft are flying) and forming a single worldwide network. 

GX is not just a new type of satellite network, but also an exclusive new antenna, using a new data protocol and new ground stations. Each satellite has not one, but two ground stations on different continents for built-in redundancy. We will soon put up another GX satellite, further layering on capacity ahead of passenger and airline demand. Each satellite has six additional steerable beams so that we can add flexible capacity to seasonal demand or peak traffic areas.  

The Lufthansa Group has chosen GX for its short- and medium-haul aircraft. It has now been installed on 58 aircraft and is being tested free on 10 aircraft.

What’s next for GX?

We will launch at least two more satellites from 2020 forward to add more capacity. We are seeing a lot of demand and have ramped up an unprecedented backlog since our launch of GX Aviation only five months ago.

What is the European Aviation Network (EAN)?

EAN is a new network that combines satellite and ground towers. We will have a special satellite launching around June or July. This network combines the best of satellite and a complementary ground network. Both satellite and ground towers will use the same frequency. We are working with Deutsche Telekom, which is rolling out cell towers on the ground with antennas pointed in the air that use the 4G LTE protocol, adapted for aviation speeds. Regular LTE was designed for not more than 350 kph (217 mph) (to accommodate phone use in high-speed trains).

The new satellite will cover all Europe, and the ground towers will help ensure aircraft have good connectivity in very dense traffic areas, for example around hubs. These are places where a satellite signal may sometimes get interrupted due to maneuvering of the aircraft or where many aircraft demand a lot of internet capacity. The EAN system is very light and compact; the satellite antenna on top of the fuselage is barely more than the size of a sheet of paper, weighing only 4-5 kg (9-11 lb.). The ground antennae on the bottom are two little blades, the size of soda cans. We keep it light to keep it affordable. 

The IAG Group, with British Airways, Vueling, Aer Lingus and Iberia, has begun equipping for EAN and plans to equip over 300 aircraft. They will go live after this summer and expect to have 90% of their aircraft ready by the first half of 2019.  Equipment will be installed during regular maintenance checks. The Lufthansa Group is also considering EAN and will run trials. 

How does Inmarsat continue to prioritize safety?

For over 20 years, cockpits have used voice and brief Telex-like ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) messaging. ACARS is used over VHF radio links and over Inmarsat satellite communication. We have been providing our Classic Aero [mode] for long-haul communication over oceans where VHF radio [connection] is impossible.

Now we have designed and tested a more modern successor, SB Safety. This system is more secure and versatile and can meet the requirements of the 21st century. 

As you can imagine, cockpit communication needs to be extremely trustworthy, especially when you are way out over the ocean. SB S therefore uses L-band radio frequency; while not as broad as the Ka-band we use for the 200 to 300 passengers in the back, it is extremely reliable and resilient. And it is separate from passenger communication and highly secure, so it is much better protected against hacking attempts. It can do everything the old ACARS can do, plus a lot more. This opens up new markets: application markets, such as Electronic Flight Bag applications, as well as geographical markets, such as the continental use of satcom. 

Some examples: The secure and reliable internet channel that SB S provides allows for the separation of sensors and distributed processing. In the past, cockpit connectivity used only onboard aircraft sensors. Now, we will see combinations of aircraft and ground data. Our partner Honeywell’s connected weather service will use sensors onboard, transmit that data to the ground, combine it with other aircraft weather radar-data and other weather data on the ground and then send a much richer total weather situation back to the aircraft. We are also developing Black Box in the Cloud and Internet-of-Things applications that will stream important aircraft data in real time to the ground.

Also, we are leading a project called IRIS, for the European Space Agency and SESAR [Single European Sky ATM Research], to use SB Safety to support more efficient use of the continental European airspace and enable 4-D navigation; reducing congestion in the air, increasing safety and saving fuel.

SB Safety has been trialed by Hawaiian Airlines for about two years. The carrier uses it across the Pacific on its Boeing 767-300s, and it will be installed on their Airbus A320neos coming at year-end. Several other major international carriers will trial the system later this year. Based on the proven performance, SB Safety is expected to get approved for transoceanic use (FANS) by FAA PARC in the second half of 2017. Airbus will offer it as its standard light satcom solution on new A320s and A330s from the first half of 2018.

Any final points?

All three of these systems are here today. They are not just glorious promises or unfunded paper plans. GX is operating now. EAN is rolling out, with satellite scheduled for launch at the end of June and coming into service in the third quarter. SB Safety improves flight ops on a daily basis. These are real products, they are proven and flying.